By Art Martone
FOXBORO -- Say what you will about the Patriots defense -- and there's plenty to say after yet another fourth-quarter meltdown -- but don't say it didn't come through at the absolute critical time Sunday.
A tumbling interception by James Sanders on the New England 6-yard line with 30 seconds left halted what was shaping up as a game-winning Colts drive, in what was shaping up as another monumental New England collapse against Indianapolis, and clinched the Pats' 31-28 victory in a showdown of AFC powers.
The Patriots had jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first 17 minutes of the game and led, 31-14, after a Shayne Graham field goal with 10:23 to play in the fourth quarter. And if that sounds familiar, it should: The Pats had a 31-14 lead in the fourth quarter at Indianapolis last November but wound up losing, 35-34, in a game that set the tone for the disappointing limp to the finish -- and quick playoff ouster -- of the '09 Patriots.
Those memories stirred when the Colts needed only 2 minutes and 26 seconds to drive 73 yards in 7 plays for the touchdown -- a five-yard Peyton Manning pass to Blair White -- that cut the lead to 31-21.
They became stronger when the Pats' offense, which had had its way with the crippled Indianapolis defense all afternoon, went three-and-out for the first time all afternoon and wiped less than a minute off the clock.
And Indianapolis 2009 was all anyone could think of when the Colts again went 73 yards in 7 plays -- this time in only 2 minutes and 18 seconds -- and again scored on a Manning-to-White hookup, this one of 18 yards, that made the score 31-28 with 4:46 still left on the clock.
The Patriots' second collapse in two years seemed inevitable when the offense again was unable to put together a time-consuming drive and punted the ball back to the Colts with 2:25 left. Within four plays, Indianapolis had the ball in New England territory, and seemed in such control that Manning was calling running plays for Donald Brown . . . so confident he would score, it seemed, that he was also working the clock to make sure the Patriots would have no time to respond once the Colts tied the game or took the lead.
With 36 seconds left, they were in Adam Vinatieri field-goal range on the Patriots' 24.
And then Manning launched a pass down the right sideline intended for Pierre Garcon. Sanders, at the 6-yard line, leaped as high as he could, snared the ball, and fell backwards onto the turf. The drive was ended, the collapse was averted, and the game was New England's.
"I thought I had a chance for the ball," Sanders said. "Linebacker Gary Guyton and I had a double team on the tight end Jacob Tamme and looking through Tamme to Peyton, I saw that he saw that once I stepped down that he had Garcon one-on-one with the corner. So I tried to drop back at the last second and help.
"Luckily, I got enough depth to make the play."
"We were going for the win," said a rueful Manning afterward. "We had some time and a good play call. Just a poor throw."
Nowhere in the first 50 minutes did such an ending seem in the offing.
The Pats intercepted Manning on the Colts' first possession -- Brandon Meriweather doing the honors -- and a 39-yard return had the Pats in business at the Indianapolis 32. Four plays later, Tom Brady hit Wes Welker with a 22-yard touchdown pass for a 7-0 lead.
They made it 14-0 with 1:25 elapsed in the second quarter on an eight-yard Brady-to-Aaron Hernandez pass, which capped a 15-play, 82-yard drive. They added another TD -- on a five-yard run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- sandwiched around a pair of Manning touchdown passes, of 1 yard to Gijon Robinson to 11 yards to Reggie Wayne, and led 21-14 at halftime.
Their defense stopped Manning in the third quarter and they upped their lead to 31-14 on an electrifying, 36-yard touchdown run by Danny Woodhead and the Graham field goal.
And then came the garrison finish.
"We just knew we had to make a play," said Sanders. "We knew that if we sat back and didn't make a play that we'd probably lose the game because Manning is just that good at running the offense. We had to go out there and take that victory and we did at the end."
"We've got a quick turnaround here to play Detroit Thursday, so we can't stay on this very long," saidcoach Bill Belichick of the victory, which improved their record to 8-2and keeps them tied with the Jets for first place in the AFC East. "But well enjoy it here for a couple hours."
You might not think there'd be a whole lot to enjoy, considering how it played out.
But it sure beats how they felt last year.
Art Martone can be reached at email@example.com.